THE TEMPEST (2010): Review by Jan Lisa Huttner

Julie Taymor’s new adaptation of The Tempest is a marvel of sight and sound!

First performed in 1611, William Shakespeare’s final play is the culmination of both life wisdom and theatrical craft. The focus of Shakespeare’s drama is a wizard named Prospero. Once the ruler of Milan, Prospero was deposed by his brother, set adrift, and washed up on an enchanted island. Years later, watching from a high cliff as his enemies sail into view, Prospero sees his opportunity for revenge.

But in Taymor’’s hands Shakespeare’’s fundamentally masculine plot is revitalized with a deeply feminine sensibility. She changes Prospero into “Prospera” (played by Helen Mirren at her most magnificent and multifaceted), and thereby forces us to reexamine all our assumptions about motivation and narrative drive.

In Shakespeare’’s original, the island is populated by “Spirits, Nymphs and Reapers,” but Taymor has stripped all extraneous natives from the plot in order to focus on just two: incorporeal “Ariel” (Ben Whishaw) and earthy “Caliban” (Djimon Hounsou).

When we first meet them, Ariel has a privileged position in Prospera’’s world, but she calls Caliban “my slave,” and treats him accordingly. Why this difference?

Stimulating to the mind, intoxicating to the senses, how can there be no place for Julie Taymor’’s version of The Tempest on this year’s list of likely Oscar nominees? Alas, no one seems to care much anymore about this “brave new world that has such people in it,” so unfortunately most of you will have to wait for the DVD. 🙁 (JLH: 4/5)

Review by FF2 Editor-in-Chief Jan Lisa Huttner

Julie Taymor’’s new adaptation of The Tempest is a marvel of sight and sound!

First performed in 1611, William Shakespeare’’s final play is the culmination of both life wisdom and theatrical craft. Four hundred years later, the language may be arcane but the emotions (passion and grief, betrayal and revenge) are as deep, resonant, and immediately recognizable as the day they were first penned. And in Taymor’’s hands Shakespeare’s fundamentally masculine plot is revitalized with a deeply feminine sensibility.

The focus of Shakespeare’s drama is a wizard named Prospero. Once the ruler of Milan, Prospero was deposed by his brother Antonio and set adrift in a small boat with his tiny daughter Miranda (the original play’s only female cast member). Miraculously they survived, and now, after a dozen years spent on an enchanted island, Prospero sees his opportunity for revenge when Antonio sails past, returning home after attending a royal wedding in Tunis.

Prospero creates a wild storm (the tempest of the title) which tosses the ship’s inhabitants into the sea. Then he sprinkles them onto separate beaches—dazed and disoriented, but very much alive.

Three days after the storm, Prospero reveals himself to his “guests” (all of whom have been fully tested by their travails in the interim), and together they all sail back to Italy.

The film’’s action (like the play’’s), revolves around the adventures of the shipwrecked men, driven forward at Prospero’’s command.

Shakespeare braided his plot with three strands: first Prospero’’s brother Antonio in the company of his lord King Alonso (also attended by his advisor Gonzalo and his brother Sebastian); next Alonso’’s butler Stephano (carried ashore on a barrel of wine) and Trinculo (the court jester); and finally Prince Ferdinand (Alonso’’s son) who believes that he is the wreck’’s sole survivor.

For four hundred years, scholars have focused on the parallel between Shakespeare and Prospero: two conjurers holding their captive audiences in thrall. Then along comes Taymor, who changes Prospero into “Prospera” (Helen Mirren at her most magnificent and multifaceted), and thereby forces us to reexamine all our assumptions about motivation and narrative drive.

Shakespeare’’s hero, a man wronged, wants to be restored to his former position. Taymor’’s heroine, equally wronged, is also acutely aware of the need to secure a future for her daughter “Miranda” (played by sweet-faced Felicity Jones) while she still has the power to do so.

In Shakespeare’’s original, the island is populated by natives (described as “strange Shapes” when they appear before Alonso and his retinue in Act Three and as “Spirits, Nymphs and Reapers” when Prospero summons them in Act Four), but Taymor has stripped everyone extraneous from the plot in order to focus on just two: incorporeal “Ariel” played by Ben Whishaw (who starred last year as ethereal poet John Keats in Bright Star) and earthy “Caliban” played by Djimon Hounsou (who made an unforgettable debut in Amistad and received an Oscar nomination a few years back for his commanding role in Blood Diamond).

When we first meet them, Ariel has a privileged position in Prospera’’s world. She calls him “dainty Ariel,” “delicate Ariel,” and “my bird,” and she treats him like a treasured pet. In contrast, she calls Caliban “my slave,” and treats him accordingly.

Ariel became Prospera’’s servant when she freed him from a tree, and everything she knows about the island’s history she knows from him. According to Ariel, his tormenter was “the foul witch Sycorax,” a woman brought to the island and left there years before. As Ariel tells it, the pretext for her banishment from Algiers was also witchcraft, but Prospera refuses to see any parallel between Sycorax’’s “mischiefs manifold and sorceries terrible” and her own “secret studies.”

Caliban is Sycorax’’s son. Pregnant when she was forced from her home in Algiers, she gave birth and died sometime later. Arriving from Milan after Sycorax’’s death, Prospera took pity on the orphan boy. She taught him culture, language, and religion; Caliban, in exchange, showed Prospera the island’s “fresh springs” and “fertile places.” Prospera’’s daughter and Sycorax’’s son were the only human children on the island, and she raised them together until the years passed and Caliban’s thoroughly human and totally predictable longing for Miranda (now grown into a beautiful teenager) filled Prospera with rage.

And thus did Caliban, in Taymor’’s telling of Shakespeare’s tale, becomes the agent of Prospera’’s awakening.

As a woman, Prospera understands that, having no other human choices available to her, Miranda will eventually give herself to Caliban, and thereby wed herself to the island forever. And so, for Miranda’’s sake, Taymor’’s Prospera renounces revenge, choosing to save Alonso and all his retinue (including the hateful Antonio) so that Miranda can have a future. From the moment Prospera, watching from a high cliff, sees her enemies sail into view, lessons must be learned before the various characters (including Prospera herself) can be released, newly cleansed, back to Western civilization.

This is William Shakespeare’’s story brought vividly to life by Julie Taymor. In addition to Mirren, Jones, Hounsou, and Whishaw, her perfect cast includes Russell Brand as “Trinculo” (the jester), Reese Carney as “Prince Ferdinand” (King Alonso’’s son), Alan Cumming as “Sebastian” (King Alonso’’s brother), Tom Conti as “Gonzalo” (King Alonso’’s advisor), Chris Cooper as “Antonio,” (Prospera’’s brother), Alfred Molina as “Stephano” (King Alonso’’s butler), and David Strathairn as “King Alonso.”

Taymor’’s wonderful technical crew is lead by cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh (nominated for an Oscar for his work on Jane Campion’’s masterpiece The Piano), costume designer Sandy Powell (winner of Oscars for Shakespeare in Love and The Young Victoria), and composer Elliot Goldenthal (Oscar-winner for the score he wrote for Taymor’’s film Frida).

The special effects required to depict Whishaw as an “airy sprite” are simple, low tech, and highly effective. And Goldenthal wrote lovely music for Whishaw so he could sing the poems Shakespeare wrote for Ariel in verse. All these artists make glorious individual contributions to The Tempest, augmenting Hawaii’’s naturally cinematic coastline.

Stimulating to the mind, intoxicating to the senses, how can there be no place for Julie Taymor’’s version of The Tempest on this year’’s list of likely Oscar nominees? And yet, three weeks after it opened “in limited release,” it’ is only being shown on thirteen screens in the entire USA. Here in Chicago, it’ is only offered on one screen, and only for one show per day!

Alas, no one seems to care much anymore about this “brave new world that has such people in it.” So unfortunately most of you will have to wait for the DVD 🙁

© Jan Lisa Huttner (10/20/10) FF2 Media

Featured Photo” Helen Mirren as “Prospera” with Ben Whishaw as “Ariel.”

Middle Photo: Djimon Hounsou as “Caliban.”

Bottom Photo: Felicity Jones as “Miranda.

Photo Credits: Melinda Sue Gordon ©2010 Tempest Production, LLC. All Rights Reserved.


Addendum

Typically, I add interview notes to this section of my reviews, so I’m sorry to report that I never got the chance to discuss The Tempest with Julie Taymor. I tried! I asked the local publicist; I asked a contact in NYC; I got nowhere.

Sadly, Julie Taymor did very few interviews with anyone about The Tempest. I don’t know if this was her choice, I just know this is a fact … Many directors come to Chicago for Press Days before big openings, but, at least as far as I know, Julie Taymor never did.

So here are some background comments from an interview with Helen Mirren posted on NPR’s Talk of the Nation website at: http://www.npr.org/2010/12/06/131853967/helen-mirren-twists-shakespeare-in-the-tempest?ps=rs

Please note that I read this interview AFTER I saw The Tempest twice and then wrote my own review.

HOST NEAL CONAN: … in this picture, you play the Wizard Prospero, as we’ve all come to know him, but with a gender switch.

HELEN MIRREN: Yes. I play it as a woman, absolutely, as a witch, or at least a woman – an ordinary – not an ordinary woman, but a human woman, but who dabbles in the black and the white arts of mysticism and of magic.

CONAN: And the difference being – I know Vanessa Redgrave, some years ago, played the part, but as a man. What is the difference when, I guess for one thing, they had to rewrite some lines?

MIRREN: Very little. I mean, the amazing is – and I realized watching this play – I saw it about two, three years ago, which was what gave me the idea. I saw Derek Jacobi playing the role very well. But as I was watching the play, I realized that a woman could play this role without any change to the text at all. The whole – all of the relationships would work just as well with a woman in that role as a man. And, you know, it was a great sort of discovery because, in a way, it was like, wow, here’s a great role for me possibly to play in the future.

CONAN: And – well, first of all, the director, Julie Taymor, did she have the same idea?

MIRREN: I think she did have the same idea in a sort of parallel universe. We didn’t know each other at that point. We met at a party and professed the interest to work with each other. And Julie said, what would you like to do? And I said, well, you know, this had been sort of in the back of my mind. So I said, well, you know, if I was to do a Shakespeare again, I’d like to do Prospero in The Tempest.

CONAN: There – you say not much had to be rewritten, but it puts a different cast on things. I mean, I think much ink has been …

MIRREN: Of course. Yes, the relationship.

CONAN: … spilled on the Freudian relationships of Prospero in the story.

MIRREN: The relationships shift, you know. But I think the Caliban-Ariel relationship becomes very interesting, as a woman. I think those characters represent the subconscious in human – in the – in a human being. And I think especially the relationship with Caliban becomes very interesting because it’s – you know, it has the sexual frisson in it that Caliban is all about. Caliban is all about sexuality and that side of our human condition. And Ariel is all about the imagination and the soul and the spirit. So it’s wonderful to have a woman, you know, engaging with those two characters.
I mean, obviously, the relationship with Miranda becomes maternal. I think in becoming maternal, that she improves her relationship. It doesn’t have that rather uncomfortable patriarchal, oppressive kind of feeling that Prospera – Prospero has when played by a man.

CONAN: There must also been some conversation at some point: well, people are just going to think it’s a gimmick.

MIRREN: I don’t think so. No, because it’s – I never thought that, I must say, because – I mean, the great thing about Shakespeare – of course, you know, we all do Shakespeare in many, many different ways. Of course, it’s not a gimmick. It’s a reinterpretation of the play.

And the brilliant thing about Shakespeare is that it has the capability built into it of being constantly reinterpreted for every generation, every new era, every culture, if you like, and that is why he is the great genius of drama writing.

© Jan Lisa Huttner (12/27/10) FF2 Media

Photo Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon.

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